‘I told her to go to bed,’ I said. ‘She is a little under the weather, and she was very tired after cooking tonight. I wanted her to be quite well for tomorrow.’
‘And what will you do? To celebrate?’
‘Is there much for us to celebrate?’
I shrugged. ‘We will go to church. Perhaps visit some of our older neighbours. It is a hard day for them to be alone.’
‘You look after everyone, don’t you?’
‘It is no crime to be a good neighbour.’
‘The basket of logs I had delivered for your own use. I know you took them to the mayor’s house.’
‘His daughter is sick. She needs the extra warmth more than we do.’
‘You should know, Madame, that nothing escapes me in this little town. Nothing.’
I couldn’t meet his eyes. I was afraid that this time my face, the rapid beating of my heart, would betray me. I wished I could wipe from my mind all knowledge of the feast that was taking place a few hundred yards from here. I wished I could escape the feeling that the Kommandant was playing a game of cat and mouse with me.
I took another sip of my cognac. The men were singing again. I knew this carol. I could almost make out the words.
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht.
Alles schläft; einsam wacht.
Why did he keep looking at me? I was afraid to speak, afraid to get up again in case he asked awkward questions. Yet just to sit and let him stare at me seemed to make me complicit in something. Finally I took a small breath and looked up. He was still watching me. ‘Madame, will you dance with me? Just one dance? For Christmas’s sake?’
‘Just one dance. I would like … I would like to be reminded of humanity’s better side, just once this year.’
‘I don’t … I don’t think …’ I thought of Hélène and the others, down the road, free, for one evening. I thought of Liliane Béthune. I studied the Kommandant’s face. His request seemed genuine. We shall just … be two people …
And then I thought of my husband. Would I wish him to have a sympathetic pair of arms to dance in? Just for one evening? Did I not hope that somewhere, many miles away, some good-hearted woman might remind him in a quiet bar that the world could be a place of beauty?
‘I will dance with you, Herr Kommandant,’ I said. ‘But only in the kitchen.’
He stood, held out his hand and, after a slight hesitation, I took it. His palm was surprisingly rough. I moved a few steps closer, not looking at his face and then he rested his other hand on my waist. As the men in the next room sang, we began to move slowly around the table, me acutely aware of his body only inches from my own, the pressure of his hand on my corset. I felt the rough serge of his uniform against my bare arm, and the soft vibration of his humming through his chest. I felt as if I were almost alight with tension, every sense monitoring my fingers, my arms, trying to ensure that I did not get too close, fearful that at any point he might pull me to him.
And all the while a voice repeated in my head, I am dancing with a German.
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Gottes Sohn, o wie lacht …
But he didn’t do anything. He hummed, and he held me lightly, and he moved steadily in circles around the kitchen table. And just for a few minutes I closed my eyes and was a girl, alive, free from hunger and cold, dancing on the night before Christmas, my head a little giddy from good cognac, breathing in the scent of spices and delicious food. I lived as Édouard lived, relishing each small pleasure, allowing myself to see beauty in all of it. It was two years since a man had held me. I closed my eyes, relaxed and let myself feel all of it, allowing my partner to swing me round, his voice still humming into my ear.
Christ, in deiner Geburt!
Christ, in deiner Geburt!
The singing stopped and after a moment, almost reluctantly, he stepped back, releasing me. ‘Thank you, Madame. Thank you very much.’
When I finally dared to look up there were tears in his eyes.
The next morning a small crate arrived on our doorstep. It contained three eggs, a small poussin, an onion and a carrot. On the side, in careful script, was marked: Fröhliche Weihnachten. ‘It means “Merry Christmas”,’ Aurélien said. For some reason he refused to look at me.
As the temperatures dropped, the Germans tightened their control over St Péronne. The town became uneasy, greater numbers of troops coming through daily; the officers’ conversations in the bar took on a new urgency, so that Hélène and I spent most of our time in the kitchen. The Kommandant barely spoke to me; he spent much of his time huddled with a few trusted men. He looked exhausted, and when I heard his voice in the dining room it was often raised in anger.
Several times that January French prisoners of war were marched up the main street and past the hotel, but we were no longer allowed to stand on the pavement to watch them. Food became ever scarcer, our official rations dropped, and I was expected to conjure feasts out of ever shrinking amounts of meat and vegetables. Trouble was edging closer.
The Journal des Occupés, when it came, spoke of villages we knew. At night it was not unusual for the distant boom of the guns to cause faint ripples in the glasses on our tables. It was some days before I realized that the missing sound was that of birdsong. We had received word that all girls from the age of sixteen and all boys from fifteen would now be required to work for the Germans, pulling sugar beet or tending potatoes, or sent further afield to work in factories. With Aurélien only months from his fifteenth birthday, Hélène and I became increasingly tense. Rumours were rife as to what happened to the young, with stories of girls billeted with gangs of criminal men or, worse, instructed to ‘entertain’ German soldiers. Boys were starved or beaten, moved around constantly so that they remained disoriented and obedient. Despite our ages Hélène and I were exempt, we were informed, because we were considered ‘essential to German welfare’ at the hotel. That alone would be enough to stir resentment among the rest of our village when it became known.
There was something else. It was a subtle change, but I was conscious of it. Fewer people were coming to Le Coq Rouge in the daytime. From our usual twenty-odd faces, we were down to around eight. At first I thought the cold was keeping people indoors. Then I became worried, and called on old René to see if he was ill. But he met me at the door and said gruffly that he preferred to stay at home. He did not look at me as he spoke. The same happened when I went to call on Madame Foubert and the wife of the mayor. I was left feeling strangely unbalanced. I told myself that it was all in my imagination, but one lunchtime I happened to walk past Le Bar Blanc on my way to the pharmacy, and saw René and Madame Foubert sitting inside at a table, playing draughts. I was convinced my eyes had deceived me. When it became clear that they hadn’t, I put my head down and hurried past.
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